There is no shortage of experience on the Michigan softball team.
Between senior stars in outfielder Lexie Blair and pitcher Alex Storako, and fifth-year returnees like pitcher Meghan Beaubien and infielder Taylor Bump, there’s a long list of decorated veterans who are expected to occupy key leadership roles this year. Still, a newcomer has entered the fold, and she has already implemented herself as a pillar in the locker room.
That newcomer is graduate transfer outfielder Kristina Burkhardt.
“She calls herself the grandma of the team” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “When you’re new, sometimes you don’t just come in and become the life of the party. You want to blend. I just said to her, ‘You should do that for a little bit. But you matter, and I want your voice.’ ”
Even before the season has begun, the graduate transfer from North Carolina has quickly established her presence off the field, earning her teammates’ admiration. The experience that she garnered over her first five years in Chapel Hill has translated into her role with the Wolverines. Largely impacting the team’s younger players, Burkhardt’s leadership has matched that of Michigan’s fourth and fifth year players.
“I would say I’m a huge leader by example,” Burkhardt said. “I come in and I get my work done, and I love bringing the freshmen under my wing and just taking them through the ropes.”
But as much as Burkhardt has already contributed off the field, she has the potential to contribute just as much on it.
An injury derailed her freshman season with the Tar Heels, but the setback only made Burkhardt stronger. She became a standout, delivering a .300 career batting average as a four year starter. Burkhardt is also coming off one of the best seasons of her career, where she led North Carolina with a .333 batting average and a .957 OPS while starting every single game.
Burkhardt also shined in the outfield, recording a career .970 fielding percentage. In her most recent season, she put up a perfect 1.000, not making a single error all year. Between her exceptional fielding and her consistency at the plate, Burkhardt earned some hardware along the way, earning all-ACC selections for her performance in 2019 (first-team) and 2021 (second-team).
For the Wolverines, that kind of consistency makes Burkhardt a nearly perfect plug-and-play replacement for departed four-year starting outfielder Haley Hoogenraad. Combined with last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year in Blair, there’s potential for this outfield group to be the best in the Big Ten, and maybe even among the top in the country.
“From day one, I’ve absolutely loved Kristina,” Blair said. “Our chemistry is great, we get along well. I’m really looking forward to this group, we’ve got a lot of depth out there as well.”
As accomplished as Burkhardt is, Michigan’s established depth will make her transition more challenging. Just like everyone else, she’ll have to fight for her spot in a highly contested lineup. Returning junior outfielders Sierra Kersten and Lexi Voss both started 20 or more games in the outfield last season and will look for an expanded role. Meanwhile, Hutchins has spoken very highly of freshman outfielder Ellie Sieler this preseason, who also figures to get some playing time.
Still, Burkhardt isn’t too worried about the details of her role on the team.
“Honestly, I just want to bring enthusiasm, bring some depth in the outfield and in the hitting lineup,” Burkhardt said. “Hopefully, once we get going, that’s what I bring.”
The addition of Burkhardt culminated an offseason filled with offensive minded moves. Hutchins also added graduate transfer utility player Melina Livingston from Penn State.
For a team that often lived and died by its pitching last year — and one that has historically struggled to find production at the plate — picking up two talented players with the experience to slot in and contribute right away will help to fill those holes.
And if “Grandma” Burkhardt sets an example on the field as well as she does in the locker room, there’s no telling how far this team can go.